Rise of the Ewoks: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Eric Cunningham

Eric Cunningham is the editor-in-chief of Elections Daily. He is a lifelong resident of western North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @decunningham2. @decunningham2.

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28 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    100% affirmed re: the throne room and Death Star II assault sequences of the third act, which are among the best in the (so far) ten films. I can recall my first viewing in the theater as a teen, being stunned by the excitement, tension and fear they evoked – visceral physical fear during the dogfight scenes, and moral fear of the throne room – even though by then I’d grown old enough to know how each of the scenes would logically have to work out, but it still felt like the Rebels were on the knife’s edge of lose-the-whole-thing failure the entire time. Such fun!

    It may seem like heresy now to criticize Carrie Fisher. And mostly I have praise for bringing out the strength in Leia’s character throughout the five films in which she’s appeared, including much of her work in Return of the Jedi. But there must have been something up with her personally (and yes, she had plenty of demons off-screen!) on the day they filmed the big emotional scene between Leia and Han. Her delivery falls really flat and ruins the scene. Just my $.02.

    Also the too-cute-by-a-half Ewoks annoyed me. From the first time I saw this movie in the theater as a teenager and every time I re-watch it or re-watch scenes or even think about them. With that said, the ground battle sequence with the primitive-versus-technological was reasonably credibly presented, and the triple-threading of the three battle zones was really good film editing, very advanced for the era, something which I think is easy to overlook in retrospect.Report

  2. Doctor Jay says:

    It never fails to amaze me how differently people can react to a film. For instance, I am not put off by the Special Edition music, I like it better. Especially the closing music, the “Ewok Song” thing just seemed dumb and overly cutesy.

    I really like the ground battle thread. It’s been a while, but my recollection is that the emotional momentum turns with the Ewok counterattack. Up until then, each event has made things worse for the Rebels, and the Ewok attack is the break they need. Now, it can’t possibly affect the throne room scene, but that’s The Force in action – everything is connected.

    Yeah, the Ewoks seem overly like prepackaged merchandise. Supposedly, in the first draft they were supposed to be Wookies. But Lucas had to cut the script back to fit one film, so he created Chewbacca to give the Wookies a presence. Then he gets to make the film he first planned, and decides he can’t use the Wookies, so makes them small.

    I first saw RotJ in a theater after a two-year wait. During those two years, every woman I knew had fumed about “I love you” “I know”. That cocky bastard! So they really loved it when Leia turned that around on Han. I’m not sure if this is the moment Burt refers to, but if it is, the flatness is what made it work for me.

    I have always enjoyed the film, but I described it, way back then, as “water running downhill”. There are no real surprises or twists. Everything goes as it ought to go, even though it’s very fun in the moment. (Except maybe for the lightning bolts coming out of the Emperor’s hands. Where did THAT come from?)

    Which sets it apart from Empire Strikes Back, and “I am your father”.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    Lucas really should have credited H. Beam Piper for using his Fuzzies, even if they were in the public domain.


  4. DensityDuck says:

    Someone on Twitter pointed out that if you’re watching this with kids, then maybe watch the two Ewok Adventure movies before any of the rest, because that way when the Ewoks show up in RotJ it’ll be an amazing callback.Report

  5. George Turner says:

    Just for amusement, I’ve written extensive pieces on how Lucas used clever music and lighting to make the audience root for the movies real bad guys, the rebels. Return of the Jedi makes a good example of the basic argument because the plot contrasts strongly with the ethical stance found series like Star Trek and Stargate SG-1, regarding the prime directive and the evils of having people from more advanced civilization posing as gods. Here Lucas is in blatant opposition to that accepted bit of wisdom. His heroes pose as gods and fool innocent stone-age forest creatures to serve as cannon fodder in a war that they had no stake in.

    It is said that originally the action was supposed to take place on Chewbacca’s home planet, where Chewie’s people had been enslaved and abused by the Empire. Chewbacca’s people were also tech savvy, large, and great warriors, so the first idea made sense on multiple levels. It would be a well-deserved slave revolt against an evil empire. But Ewoks are cuter and toys make money, so we got Ewoks. I also wonder if part of the decision was because it’s easier for casting to find really short people and young kids, and easier to make small furry costumes, than to find seven-foot actors and make large costumes.

    And then I wondered if the moon was really needed at all. Sure, it added some ground combat, allowing the climactic action to cut between the space battle, the Death Star, and the moon, but I think it would stand up just as well with just the Death Star and space battle, especially since the Ewok combat was almost comic relief that kept breaking the tension being established in the other two arenas.

    Then there are the usual complaints about the lack of consistency or continuity, complaints that became more glaring with the later prequels and then Disney’s work, where the writers rethought the established “laws of physics” to make their current scene work without regard to how that would trash what had come before.

    In Return of the Jedi, the glaring problem is that the Death Star, like its predecessor, is a planet killer whose big cannon is only designed to shoot in one direction. The whole Death Star has to slowly rotate to aim it, which is fine for blowing up planets, but the Death Star probably can’t rotate much faster than a planet spins. That means that its huge gun is tactically useless against anything other than a planet or moon, because capital ships would just avoid the obvious line of fire. Yet the surprise of the big cannon being fully operation is the whole crux of the climax, shredding the rebel fleet and all Luke’s friends. He should have closed his eyes and sent a message to the fleet commanders, something like “Yo. Morons. Get out of the way of that gun!”

    So there are two potentially distracting pieces of writing that are interspersed with the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, and once you’ve become sensitive to the problems with the surface battle and the space battle, the climax really loses a lot of its magnificence.

    And this makes me wonder if it was even necessary to try and cut between the three battles simultaneously. I don’t think it is. Indeed, I think it is a crutch. They’re trying to make a scene seem even more important or critical by establishing some ticking clock over there. And instead of just letting that other event hang in the back of your mind, like a backdrop to the scene, they keep cutting over to show it to you, not trusting that they’ve laid the proper groundwork for the audience to understand the gravity of the singular confrontation.

    I don’t think this is, in general, good film making. It’s certainly makes for spectacle and a dynamic and sometimes confusing screen, and it is a staple of The Avengers movies. But the Avengers draw a lot of complaints about being overly busy. Parts of them are simply hard to watch because of the frenetic cutting. In contrast, Spielberg is a master of serial storytelling. Indiana Jones solves one horrendous situation after another, and each one follows the next. He doesn’t cut back and forth between three or four imminent perils taking place simultaneously and far apart. Each action, each scene, stands on its own as part of a sequence.

    This gets back to visual storytelling 101. We are geared to process images that we see in the real world. We blink, we focus, and our eyes glance left and right as we splice discrete views into a mental image. This is well known stuff for shooting conversations and overs (conversations show over the shoulder, without both actors necessarily present for filming), where if you shoot an actor from the wrong side the audience can’t figure out who he’s talking to because mentally our body must’ve jumped, mid-sentence, from one side of the two people to the other, and in real life our bodies never do that. Overs work because we can imagine what the conversation looks like from either party’s perspective.

    Well, in interspersing short clips from three completely different battles, mentally the viewer is three different viewers, one on the moon, one involved in the space battle, and one on the Death Star. We’re not going to be able to remember that as a discrete whole or a continuous, unfolding chain of events. We could, for example, make a little quiz: “After Luke slashes at Vader under the stairs, does it a) Cut to the Calimari. b) Cut to the Millennium Falcon, c) Cut to the fight on the moon.” You could further ask where in those three possibilities the cut actually went, and most people probably couldn’t give an answer because there’s isn’t a real connection (other than pacing and a couple basic plot ties) between the three fields of battle. If you were sitting around a campfire telling some young ones about the movie, your brain likely can’t re-thread the climax into a story in the same sequence that it was shown.

    In contrast, a good climax or pivotal scene holds together as a story, as if you witnessed it standing in the room with the participants, because in effect you did. You know the events that led up the to scene, you know the scene, and you know how it naturally leads into the next scene. Our brains are wired to understand things coming into one body, and we can imagine how a big scene must’ve seemed to even several people, but splicing those stories together to tell a larger story takes a lot of skill so it doesn’t become a jumbled mess when we try to recall it.

    So how might Spielberg have told the story? My guess is that he would have sequenced it. First would come the battle on the moon to destroy the shield generator. Then the fleet would come in and get intercepted by the Imperial fleet, and then Luke would confront Vader, and then they’d kill the Emperor and blow up the new Death Star. Each peril and obstacle would lead to the next, and it would be presented as if the view had followed the key action almost as a participant at each step of the way.

    And to wrap things up, I highly recommend watching all those “Masterclass: _____ on Filmmaking” courses! They’re highly fun and educational when you’ve got too much time on your hands and the latest movies are big disappointments. ^_^Report

    • George if you are going to go 1200 words, submit it and we can post it for all to seeReport

      • North in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        You really should! This is pretty much big enough for an article.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        I assure you, the comment didn’t start out nearly that long. ^_^

        I was just going to snark on the Ewok cannon fodder and didn’t find a stopping point.

        I do recommend some of those Masterclass videos, though, which you can probably find with the slightest bit of searching.

        One thing all of them (Ron Howard, Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, David Lynch, Martin Scorses) say is that there is no procedure, no real formula. In fact, a few of them say you can toss all the film making books in the trash. Then they explain how they do it, often wildly adapting to a particular project, and what the possibilities and pitfalls are. They say you really just have to go out and starting doing it. You might think you can’t, but you can. Another thing they emphasize is that, in all likelihood, most people could do it pretty well because we’re all natural storytellers.

        However, it does help to have feedback to make sure the audience is reacting like you think they’ll react. Ron Howard says he often has to do major recuts or reshoots after screening his latest work for his friends.

        I think Lucas’s problem is that when he does screen a film, based on the various directors’ commentaries on the prequels, he does so in a room full of, essentially, sycophants. I got the impression that nobody is willing to harshly criticize his ideas. I think the same thing shows up in the final season of Game of Thrones were the cast was probably underwhelmed by the read-throughs, if not miffed or horrified, but nobody was to say anything negative to the show runners who wrote the script.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to George Turner says:

      The whole Death Star has to slowly rotate to aim it, which is fine for blowing up planets, but the Death Star probably can’t rotate much faster than a planet spins. That means that its huge gun is tactically useless against anything other than a planet or moon, because capital ships would just avoid the obvious line of fire.

      The Death Star wasn’t a tactical weapon, it was a strategic weapon. The original was also a failure or close to a failure on multiple fronts, which as a prototype isn’t a huge surprise. The Death Star’s job was to cut through planetary force fields, blowing up planets was just a side effect.

      A single Star Destroyer has enough firepower to turn a planet’s surface to boiling lava down to several meters, that’s enough for any reasonable purpose. The problem is Star War’s force field technology is so impressive that a well developed planet can have a forcefield which blocks this. We saw that demo’ed when the Death Star blew up Alderaan. Alderaan’s force field actually held off the energy beam for multiple seconds, almost long enough to no-sell the attack. One of the Imperials remarked on how Alderaan’s defenses were at odds with Lela’s statements.

      The Death Star could only fire it’s beam once every few hours. In theory if Alderaan’s planetary force field had been twice as strong they could have given a middle finger to the Death Star while hiding behind it. The beam couldn’t be refocused. A single small ship could blow the DS up with one well placed shot.

      Death Star 2 was made without the Design Sabotage and had none of these flaws. It was also built on a significantly larger budget… which the Empire tried to hide.

      That’s one of those off phrases which drives home just how big the empire is. They’re stripping the resources from dozens or scores of solar systems to build this thing, and the rest of the budget is so large that this could reasonably disappear.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Dark Matter says:

        Where are you getting this information from? The movies, the highest canon, are vague enough about where the Death Star came from and what it could do beyond somehow blowing Alderaan up. And Death Star II used its main beam to destroy individual ships in the Rebel fleet during the Battle of Endor at the climax of ROTJ.

        I mean, this all makes a fair amount of sense, especially from a game design perspective. But if it were real war, there’s no reason to build weaknesses or limitations into anything; you have an advantage and you press it and you don’t accept vulnerabilities in exchange for capabilities unless you have no choice but to do that.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Burt Likko says:

          “Where are you getting this information from?”

          EU-mining or straight-up fanwank. Alan Dean Foster wrote a lot of stuff into the novelizations that was seized on by readers hungry for Star Wars content; same with West End Games. And then you had the resurgence of the property in the 1990s with Tim Zahn and all the other writers (of books and comics) who escalated things to the point that any old Star Destroyer was basically the Death Star all by itself.Report

        • Dark Matter in reply to Burt Likko says:

          …if it were real war, there’s no reason to build weaknesses or limitations into anything; you have an advantage and you press it and you don’t accept vulnerabilities in exchange for capabilities unless you have no choice but to do that.

          The Rogue One prequel was a deep dive into the reasons for the DS weaknesses and why/how they got built into it.

          The movies, the highest canon, are vague enough about where the Death Star came from and what it could do beyond somehow blowing Alderaan up.

          This is Star Wars, so there are websites with frame-by-frame evaluations of the energy beam and its impact on the planet as well as word by word evaluations of what various things imply. The expanded universe also has published schematics of things like Star Destroyers. It’s cannon that the second DS was MUCH bigger than the first. Published stats on the first make it 140km to 160km in diameter while the second ranges varies but goes up to a breathtaking 900km. The typical photo of them side by side has the 2nd with a diameter 2.5 bigger than the first, or roughly 16x the volume. At 900km we’re talking about 216x bigger.

          Big picture is the SW universe is really old, developed, and big. C3PO knows 6 million languages but all the humans speak English. Robots are fully sentient, slaves, and everywhere, to the point where a peasant farmer on an outback world can have them. It’s reasonable to walk into a seedy bar on a nowhere planet and expect to find enough people with hyperdrives that you can bribe one into taking serious risks. Hyperdrive lets you cross the galaxy in a few hours. It’s reasonable for a company to have enough resources to invade a developed planet. It’s reasonable for a crime family to have enough resources to control a planet or multiple planets.

          “Reasonable” here means “none of the characters are surprised at this”.

          If you meant why do I think Planetary force fields exist it’s because they’ve been either mentioned or been made plot devices in multiple movies. DS2 was covered by one in ROTJ. Rogue One had an Imperial base defended by one. If you meant why do I think a Star Destroyer can wipe out an unshielded planet, even without the EU specs we have the size of the ship plus the technology level. I mean heck, if we could build a ship that big then we could also put enough nukes on board to wipe out a planet.

          The real question is whether Lucas’ vision was always a universe where these things existed and was fully settled or whether he just made stuff up on the spot because of plot. If it’s the later then there is this weird consistency to everything.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Dark Matter says:

            I think the real question here is, which would win in a fight: an Imperial Star Destroyer or the USS Enterprise?Report

            • Dark Matter in reply to DensityDuck says:

              which would win in a fight: an Imperial Star Destroyer or the USS Enterprise?

              Oh you had to ask. Math time.

              The original series Enterprise was 289 meters. The current movie series updated that to 370 meters. Kirk’s original crew was 430. Picard’s was 1000 to 6000 but that included civilian residents and families and it was a Galaxy Class star craft.

              A Star Destroyer… at 1,600 meters (5,200 ft) long, Imperial-class Star Destroyers are crewed by 9,235 Officers, 27,850 enlisted personnel, and 275 Gunners. The Imperial I is armed with 60 turbolasers, 60 ion cannons, and 10 tractor beam projectors for space combat.[19] The standard complement is 72 TIE fighters (including 12 TIE Bombers and 12-24 TIE Interceptors), and a variety of support craft including shuttles and transports. Imperial Star Destroyer carries a full array of ground forces (including 9700 stormtroopers, 20 AT-ATs and 30 AT-STs) with dropships for rapid deployment to planetary surfaces, plus a prefabricated base if a permanent planetary garrison is required. (wiki)

              Length measurements shouldn’t be compared directly, what we care about is Volume and that’s going to be a ^3 increase, so an SD has about 80x the volume of the Enterprise just from that. However a huge part of the Enterprise’s length is it’s warp engines which won’t increase it’s usable space much. Reduce the effective size of the Enterprise by a fifth and the comparison becomes 160x, not 80x.

              That 160x difference is brutal. The Enterprise carries 4 shuttlecraft. The SD carries 72 TIE fighters and 50 tanks. The Enterprise carries 430 crew, the SD caries 47,010 soldiers. The Enterprise has one main gun, the DS has 120.

              Part of that is space, part of that is mission. The Enterprise has 14 science labs to deal with unknown or new stuff (it’s an explorer), the SD has zero because everything that is worth knowing about is already known and it’s purely a military craft.

              The technology difference is also going to be brutal. Each of those 120 turbolasers/ion cannons hits harder than anything/everything the Enterprise has and the ship is designed to fight until it’s totally destroyed. If memory serves, from the published stats the Enterprise would have serious problems with Bo Bo Fett’s ship “Slave One”. Then we have the tactical advantages from the DS having an FTL which is BY FAR better.

              And then we have the vast difference between the GDP/scale of the Empire and the Federation. At Wolf 359 when the Federation went all out against the Borg for the survival of humanity, the brought 40 ships, 39 were destroyed and 11,000 crew members died. One Star Destroyer has a LOT more men and weapon power than all 40 of those ships combined.

              In anything close to an even match up SW vs ST battle the Empire squishes ST like a bug.

              The Empire has 25,000 Star Destroyers. With their FTL, they could bring them all to fight the federation. Realistically they’d only need one.Report

  6. Brent F says:

    ROTJ gets a lot of flack for not being top to bottom good as the first two, but it’s high points are very good and I’ll go to the mat for them.

    The throne room scene is the best Force user confrontation in the series, largely because it’s a high stakes drawing room drama with a sword fight incidental to the battle of wills between Luke and Emperor. The space battle is also the best they’ve done, the secondary characters refuse to lie down and die in the Emperor’s trap and adapt which confounds a military dependent on overwhelming force and too rigidly following political orders to counter.

    Then there’s the Ewoks. There’s a good idea in there about a Vietnam analog that is very poorly executed.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Brent F says:

      All you say also highlights why so many are very down on the Disney versions of those same basic elements. I can’t even remember how the “world’s longest fleet chase” went, or what other action sequences they kept cutting to. The throne room confrontation with Snoke seems like a bad fan-fic compared to ROTJ, like a Youtube video about a clever cheat code combination to defeat the boss level in a Star Wars game. The ROTJ confrontation was epic, deep, and still resonates.Report

      • Brent F in reply to George Turner says:

        That’s right, but to be fair to Disney, Lucas couldn’t find the old magic when he went back to Star Wars either. The prequel duels are bigger, flashier and have a fraction of the resonance because they are largely just fights between powerful dudes who are in each others way, not personal confrontations that the sword play is just one element of. Every original flavour fight was the moment when two people’s agendas collided and they hashed out their very personal issues with each other while they were doing it.

        On the warfare side, nobody has done a battle that was actually a battle where the moves and counter moves by the sides 1) actually matter and 2) have thematic resonance since Endor either.Report

  7. Eric: Do you plan on reviewing the Family Guy spoofs, too? (I’m asking for a friend.)Report

    • Eric Cunningham in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I’ve never seen them (or Family Guy) so it’s not in the plan right now, but if there’s popular demand for something I might do it. As of right now the plan is just all 10 films and maybe a “bonus” post or two (Holiday Special, Clone Wars film, Empire of Dreams documentary, etc.).Report

      • No need to if you don’t wish. As far as I’m concerned, you’re doing a public service by reviewing the movies. (If you’re not into Family Guy, you might not like their spoofs anyway.)

        By the way. there was, as I recall, a made-for-TV star wars movie that was different from the Holiday Special. It featured Ewoks. If memory serves (I was probably 11 or so at the time? maybe it was mid 1980s?), it involved a boy and his sister trying to make their way (to somewhere? back to their parents?) on Tatooine, and for some reason Ewoks were on the planet.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    “The Ewok stuff is all well and good,”

    This scene is by far the most underrated in the franchise, with an emotional depth. created in a mere 10 secs, that is probably unmatched in any of the other movies. It also has the most pathos of a ‘redshirt’ death in possibly all of the genre.Report

    • Eric Cunningham in reply to Kolohe says:

      It’s a phenomenal scene, no doubt. There’s a lot of depth here, but one I particularly like is the fact this is the first time the Ewoks have ever experienced something like this. Sure, they have death – but death in a war like this? Never. It’s a really nice moment that gives a lot of character to the Ewoks.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kolohe says:

      Watching that clip reminded me of something else, too. Even if we excise the part about the death, the fighting seems real in a way that cgi fighting does not. (Of course, I say this as someone who is fortunate never to have had to be in a war or a gun zone. When I say it’s “real” I mean it matches other movie portrayals that seem real.)Report